Merritt Paulson removed himself as CEO of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers and the National Women’s Soccer League’s Thorns on Tuesday, following a bombshell investigation that revealed systemic emotional and sexual abuse in the NWSL.
The results of the independent investigation — commissioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation and led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and the law firm King & Spalding — said Paulson helped cover up allegations of sexual abuse and coercion. that were against former Thorns coach Paul Riley. during his time with the franchise in 2014 and ’15. The investigation began when former Thorns players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward last September with accounts against Riley, who was fired by the North Carolina Courage after allegations of misconduct were made public. The Athlete.
Paulson, the owner of both the Timbers and the Thorns, announced his latest decision to reduce his responsibilities a week after temporarily stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the Thorns.
“As you know, I have recused myself from Thorns decision-making, however, in order for the organization to move forward and come together, I feel another step is necessary,” Paulson said in a statement Tuesday. “Effective immediately, I am resigning myself as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers and announcing a global search for a CEO of the organization.”
Last week, both clubs relieved longtime president of football and general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president of operations Mike Golub of their duties for their own part in creating a toxic work environment. According to Yates’ report, Wilkinson allegedly accused Shim of “putting Riley in a bad spot” during a conversation with the Western New York Flash on behalf of the former coach and noted that he would “hire [Riley] straight.”
The report also revealed a 2013 incident involving Golub in which he made a sexually inappropriate comment to former Thorns coach and current US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone. Golub has previously been accused of creating a “toxic” work environment that allegedly included “lewd comments toward female employees and inappropriate physical contact,” according to an August 2021 report. The Oregonian.
Paulson declined to say whether or not he would sell the teams Tuesday, despite calls for him to do so. Last week, said the ownership group would not make a statement until a joint investigation by the NWSL and its players’ union is completed next month.
Paulson announced Tuesday that Heather Davis will continue to serve as the clubs’ interim president and interim CEO and that Sarah Keane, the interim CEO, will lead the search for a permanent CEO.
“I owe Sinead and Mana, the Thorns players and the NWSL my tireless effort to actively ensure that what happened in 2015 never happens again,” Paulson wrote in his statement. “I apologize to our players, the organization and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about the termination of Paul Riley. The failures and mistakes of our organization were ultimately my responsibility, and mine alone.
“It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be has now become synonymous with despicable and predatory behavior.”
The Thorns are currently set to play in the NWSL playoffs on October 23rd.